Modern American parents have a reputation for advocating too loudly on behalf of their children. They go to extreme lengths to gain success for their kids, haranguing teachers and principals, lobbying coaches, and breaking federal law. Some of these parents seem to put the achievements of their offspring over their own goals and dreams.
NASCAR legend Lee Petty didn’t parent that way, and he proved it on June 14, 1959, in one of the most dominant parenting acts in sports history.
That night at Lakewood Speedway, Lee’s son, Richard Petty, sat on top of the ‘57 Oldsmobile he’d just driven to his first NASCAR win. Just 21 years old, Richard was probably thinking about which cool print shirt he’d buy with his winnings.
But then race officials notified Richard the result was being challenged by the runner-up: his father.
Lee had some recent experience with this kind of dispute. Four months earlier, at the first Daytona 500 run at Daytona International Speedway, he’d initially come in second to Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish. Three days later, after NASCAR reviewed any photo or film they could get their hands on (because they didn’t have high speed cameras of their own set up at the finish line), Lee was declared the winner.
The dispute at Lakewood, however, was different. There wasn’t any need to consult photographs; Richard had clearly crossed the finish line first. Lee challenged because he claimed race officials had miscounted his laps; he believed he’d lapped Richard twice during a pit stop. And after reviewing their cards, the officials agreed. Lee snagged his fifth win of the season, and Richard went back to zero career victories.
I’m curious, though: why did Lee decide to get Richard’s win overturned? What was his motivation? I’ve come up with three possibilities.
1. THE MONEY
Lee and Richard were teammates, so Petty Enterprises was getting the checks for first and second place no matter what the final order was. But! NASCAR offered two possible bonuses to the Lakewood winner. If the winning car was an open air convertible, they’d throw in another $250. And if that car was a 1959 model, they’d add $450.
Richard was driving a convertible Oldsmobile, but it was a ‘57. Lee wasn’t in a convertible, but he was in a ‘59 Plymouth. Is it possible Lee did the math and decided it was worth crushing his son to get an extra $200? Maybe! When Richard retells the story, he says this was the logic Lee offered him.
My hunch is the money mattered, but it wasn’t the primary factor. That $200 gave Lee cover, like when your parents check the prices on Disney World tickets. They never wanted to take you in the first place!
2. THE TEACHING OPPORTUNITY
In post-race interviews, Lee said he didn’t want to gift Richard his first win:
That quote is the perfect intersection of “life shouldn’t be handed to you on a silver platter” and “sports should be played the right way.” And it’s tempting to believe that Lee was right. Richard didn’t get his first victory until the 1960 season, but he went on to win 200 NASCAR Cup Series races, far more than any other competitor in the sport’s history. Maybe experiences like this overturned result molded him into the racing legend he became.
Even if that’s true as a matter of causation, I still don’t believe that’s why Lee protested the race.
3. THE INCREDIBLE JOY OF DUNKING ON YOUR CHILD TO ASSERT YOUR DOMINANCE
Lee Petty died April 5, 2000. Newspapers across the country ran obituaries and tributes to him, and most of them mentioned the 1959 switcheroo at Lakewood. They also included this tidbit.
That’s not money or parenting talking. That’s just wanting to win!
I do not blame Lee Petty one bit if this was the real reason he challenged Richard’s victory. Winning feels great. Raising a child is hard. Winning by beating your child, especially when they are a worthy opponent, likely feels AMAZING. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s also very fun to drain a three over a toddler. Crying’s not going to make your footwork any better, kid.)
Lee’s win made his team a little more money and possibly pushed Richard to become an even better driver. I view those as effects, though, not causes. The man was a competitor, and blood wasn’t relevant to the question of “do you want to win?” Lee did. And, as a fellow parent, I bet Lee enjoyed reminding Richard that Dad was a pretty damn good driver.
Maybe you think that’s callous or cruel. Maybe you think it’s wrong for a parent to enjoy triumphing over their child. Parenting’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, so you’re entitled to that perspective. Me? I’ll be over here waiting for the day I can dominate my daughter at Jeopardy.